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Some women are striking from smiling today. Here’s why.


The “Day Without a Woman” strike on Wednesday may mean a day with fewer smiles.

While not every one plans to skip work, many who want to show solidarity with the growing feminist movement said they plan to strike from unpaid work that women disproportionately do, including cooking, cleaning and, some said, smiling.

More specifically, fake smiling.

Some feminists say the happy face they sport by habit — or on command — is a form of unpaid “emotional labor.” They do it to be pleasant, to be likable, or because someone told them to do it: “Why don’t you smile!”

They do it because if they don’t, there’s a name for it (Resting Bitch Face).

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“From the time you are small, as a woman  you are encouraged to put on a friendly face,” said Ariana Ascherl, an activist in Anne Arundel, Md., who is organizing a rally in front of the Supreme Court Wednesday with the Democratic Socialists of America.

On her day of action, she also plans to abstain from doing laundry and volunteering at her daughter’s school. She is also trying to be more conscious about how and when she smiles. “I’ve been accused of having a resting nice face,” she said. “Social conditioning is a hard thing to break.”

The “Day Without a Woman” strike was organized by leaders of the the massive post-inauguration women’s marches to raise awareness about the ways in which women drive the economy. The organizers collaborated with feminist groups behind the International Women’s Strike, which was planned with a similar goal, to hold both actions on International Women’s Day Wednesday.  The smile strike was listed as an action by a group backing the international strike, but many women have picked up on the idea.

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“Stop telling women to smile” has become a rallying point for feminists who say that men who cajole or prompt women to smile in public are asserting control.

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Debjani Roy, deputy director for Hollaback!, an anti-harassment group in New York, said it’s an early, and persistent form of street harassment. “A complete stranger making a demand of you in a public space is something you do not need to fulfill,” she said.

Women have to be careful, though, she said. What may first seem a light-hearted request can escalate if a woman does not comply.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, a Brooklyn-based painter launched a “Stop Telling Women to Smile” art series and campaign. She creates posters of unsmiling women with captions such as “I am not your property” and “Women are not outside for your entertainment.”

In general women are expected to be more agreeable and happy, sociologists say, whether at work providing service with a smile, or when keeping an emotional keel at home and in their personal lives.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “emotional labor” in 1983, as she described the emotional effort required in female-dominated professions, such as flight attendants, food service workers, and child care workers.

Broadly, emotional labor involves setting aside one’s own feelings in service to someone else, whether an irate customer or a melting down toddler. It involves anticipating needs, paying attention to the comfort level of others, and often doing tedious things — planning meals, remembering birthdays — that keep things going smoothly and make people happy.

It’s often unnoticed and under-valued. The term has gained new currency as low-paying service sector jobs are commanding a larger share of the economy.

When men do emotional labor, they can get praised and promoted for it, said Michelle Rodino-Colocino, an associate professor of gender and media studies at Pennsylvania Sate University and an organizer of the International Women’s Strike. For women, it’s seen as innate, and therefore not treated as a skill, she said.

That’s why feminists have taken up the mantle that emotional work should be recognized and rewarded.

The idea resonated with a lot of women who said they plan to strike.

“I’ll be striking from cooking and laundry for my partner, emotional work in my relationship, and fake smiles and fake contentment,” wrote one person who posted on a web site promoting the International Women’s Strike.

Another wrote: “I’m exhausted from navigating daily discrimination, overt and subtle. I’ll be striking from: My job, fake smiles, apologetic speech.”

But some women caution that striking from emotionally demanding tasks can send the wrong message — that this kind of work is negative.

In an interview, Hochschild said she likes the idea that the strike can draw attention to invisible work that women do, but she said that work should be celebrated, not avoided. That includes smiling. She suggested women who are told to smile in public should request a smile in return.

“I think there’s a very thin layer of civility in this particular moment in public life,” she said. “The skills that women have long honed in keeping harmony and making people feel cared for are ever more important.”

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